Sunday, September 15, 2013

Excellent Teachers Don't Just Happen

In his book the Intentional Teacher, Peter Gow writes that there are three characteristics teachers must have to be great educators: Affection for Children, Joy in Learning, and Commitment to Student Success (Gow pp 19-26). Teacher's Joy in Learning is the focus of my work at Westtown School. Whether they are fresh out of college or seasoned educators, excellent teachers are committed to their own learning and to seeing positive results from what they learn in their classrooms.

Successful professional development for teachers begins with a thoughtful and ongoing induction program. Spring 2012 we formalized a new three year induction program for all new teachers whether they are just starting out their careers or are seasoned teachers accepting a new position at Westtown School. Feedback from previous years had helped us refine our new teacher orientation program and mentor program. Good mentors are critical to new teacher success. Every new teacher at Westtown has a mentor. This seems so central to our process that I was taken aback when a colleague was telling me about his son who is in the second year of his Teach for America assignment in New York City. When he asked his son about his mentors, his son told him he had none and his supervisor had made it very clear that all questions should come back to him, the supervisor. He should not be asking other teachers  for help or advice. My colleague's son said he feels very alone in his class with his students.

At Westtown, mentors serve as guides to school culture, provide practical answers to questions, and facilitate understanding of all the various technologies and processes at our school. In the first year, this is invaluable work. A single, known, wise friend insures new teachers never feel alone. Through out the year, mentors meet as a group to compare notes and see how best to support their mentees. Mentor relationships continue into the second year. Different teachers will want different things from their mentors in the second year. Generally, the differences fall out along lines of still new to teaching folks and those with more years of teaching. Increasingly we are finding that teachers want peers to observe them teach, read through lesson plans, and offer feedback on what the mentor sees of the teacher's practice.

In their third year at Westtown all teachers have a peer coach. The difference between mentor and coach is subtle but critical. A mentor is someone who has answers, who knows how to find the answers, who serves as a guide. A coach assumes that with help the coachee will  find the answers for him or herself, will achieve his or her own goals. Coaching is a process of active listening and thoughtful questioning.  By their very nature coaches and mentors are leaders within the school. Our school culture is becoming one in which everyone is invested in realizing educational excellence across the school. Mentors, mentees, coaches and coachees see themselves as sharing responsibility for creating an excellent educational experience for all of our students.

Alongside this culture of peer support and development we have increased the support and feedback department chairs, the Athletic Director, Dean of Students, and divisional principals provide to new hires. Every new hire should expect to receive constructive feedback from her supervisors after the first month, the first quarter, the first semester, and the end of the first year. In this way, new teacher success, support and evaluation is treated as a top priority by school administrators. We believed in these new people when we hired them now we must insure their success.

Our induction program is resource, time, and people intensive. This investment in new teachers up front guarantees success and longevity in the lives of our students. Young teachers make a commitment to careers in education at Westtown, more experienced teachers see Westtown as a place to build their professional lives. Parents and students know that excellence is the expectation and not taken for granted. Anyone who really doesn't have what it takes is counseled out in the first year. The second and third years are all about striving for excellence and establishing patterns of continuous learning and commitment to student success.

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